Some recent CD releases worth listening to — or not:
Various Artists, “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes” (Electromagnetic Recordings/Harvest Records)
The bottomless well of material from Bob Dylan just got deeper with the release of “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” an unqualified success.
The 20 songs with titles like “Card Shark” and “Duncan and Jimmy” are taken from recently discovered lyrics Dylan wrote in 1967, during the period that produced the so-called Basement Tapes recordings that were released in their entirety in a separate box set earlier in November.
Such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and Marcus Mumford worked out musical arrangements from the lyrics that Dylan either never recorded, or perhaps recorded and never released. Former Dylan band member and producer T Bone Burnett, who also pulled together the “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack among many other projects, oversaw the work and makes it all flow seamlessly.
“Down On The Bottom,” the James-led opener, is a standout, as is “When I Get My Hands On You,” with Mumford taking lead vocals.
The artists create something entirely new with lyrics written nearly 45 years ago that sound like they could just as easily have come from the Civil War, Dust Bowl or yesterday.
In other words, it’s timeless. — Scott Bauer, Associated Press
The Flaming Lips, “With a Little Help from My Fwends” (Warner Bros.)
Ever wonder what “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would sound like sung by robots? Me neither, but here’s the answer.
The Flaming Lips have recorded a full-length tribute to the Beatles’ 1967 album, and the music is even more far-out and psychedelic than the landmark original. This daft pop is silly, bombastic, druggy, irreverent and rude, with lots of bleeps and blasts, but it’s not much fun or funny.
The songs lack the melodic charm and rhythmic bounce of the Fab Four renditions. Instead, there’s so much distortion not even “Lovely Rita” is pretty.
And if the goal is merely to be weird, the Lips don’t come close to matching William Shatner, who established the standard for bizarre Beatles covers when he sang “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” There’s no Shatner here, but guest appearances by Miley Cyrus, Moby, My Morning Jacket and J Mascis — among others — fail to salvage the set.
The Lips forgo the famous sustained chord to conclude “A Day In the Life.” Instead, the song and album end abruptly, as if someone finally wised up and pulled the plug. — Steven Wine, Associated Press
Garth Brooks, “Man Against Machine” (RCA Nashville)
As would be expected, Garth Brooks strives for an epic statement on his re-entry into full-time recording, after a 13-year hiatus.
Unlike most modern male country stars, Brooks looks beyond partying and celebrating rural life on “Man Against Machine.” Like U2 or Bruce Springsteen, Brooks positions himself as a cultural figurehead who speaks for, and to, the common man.
To his credit, Brooks represents the middle class who work too many hours and devote their earnings to getting by in a society that’s “rotten to the core,” as he states in the title song, which pits a desperate man making a stand against an Orwellian power structure.
The album shows the influence of country rockers Jason Aldean and Eric Church in its heavy guitars and dark-hued themes. But he doesn’t go for auto-tuned vocals, rhythm loops or rapping. The songs are weighty and wordy, taking up where his albums “Scarecrow” and “In the Life of Chris Gaines” left off.
Some tunes — “She’s Tired of Boys” and “Midnight Train” — could benefit from the concise editing that defines the best country songwriting. However, the unabashed sentiment of “Mom,” the cowboy swing of “Rodeo and Juliet” and the jaunty, dobro-led “Wrong About You” suggest the possibilities of country music in the 2010s just as Brooks’ classics did in the 1990s.
Now, like then, Brooks’ desire to address life’s important themes should be welcomed into a country music scene that rarely shows such ambition these days. — Michael McCall, Associated Press
Pink Floyd, “The Endless River” (Columbia Records)
Never was an album more aptly named than “The Endless River,” the new — and seemingly final — release from Pink Floyd. It flows unstoppably, and while some listeners may feel it meanders on too long, it’s very easy to get swept along by it.
Though this is the band’s first studio album in two decades, much of the material was recorded in 1993 and 1994, during sessions for “The Division Bell.” For years, it seemed that album would be Pink Floyd’s swansong. But now the material has been tweaked and shaped under into a new release, partly in tribute to keyboard player Rick Wright, who died in 2008.
Guitarist David Gilmour has called “The Endless River” a series of musical conversations; the band members’ musical rapport was always more eloquent than their spoken communications. There are not many words on this mostly instrumental album, although physicist Stephen Hawking lends his distinctive voice to “Talkin’ Hawkin’.”
Both the compositions and their titles allude to all the water that has passed under the bridge in the course of Pink Floyd’s long career. The opening track, “Things Left Unsaid,” sets the tone: It’s a woozy wash of Wright’s keyboards, haunting horn sounds and Gilmour’s guitar that feels elegiac.
On it rolls from there, sometimes a tranquil wash, sometimes churned into rapids by Gilmour’s piercing guitar and Nick Mason’s thundering drums, for 18 tracks — four sides of vinyl if you opt for the old-fashioned format.
What’s on display is not so much songwriting as chemistry. This band had something, a magic, and you can hear it throughout “The Endless River.”
The band members know it, too. The closing track is “Louder Than Words,” and finally there are lyrics: “We bitch and we fight, diss each other on sight,” it begins, a fond but weary tribute to creative spark and strife. “The sum of our parts, the beat of our hearts, is louder than words.” — Jill Lawless, Associated Press
Dionne Warwick, “Feels So Good” (Bright Music Records)
The duets from Dionne Warwick’s new album show her remarkable voice undiminished by time, still as sweet and melodious as ever. Her phrasing and delivery sound easy and effortless. And the choice of material is, of course, beyond reproach, relying heavily on classics composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
So the combination of Warwick with a number of younger performers, as well as some who’ve been around for decades, should have been a winner. But the record struggles to find a groove — a common shortcoming of duet compilations — and some of the arrangements sound a bit flat, too polished to carry an emotional wallop.
There are exceptions. “Every Once In A While” with Eric Paslay is spare and convincing, filled with yearning for a time that cannot be recovered. A quirky reggae version of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” with Ziggy Marley seems to combine a dozen different styles into a witty rendition that works; and Phil Driscoll brings a welcome touch of Barry White to “This Guy/This Girl’s In Love With You.”
A country-inflected “Hope Is Just Ahead” with Billy Ray Cyrus manages to deal with the horrors of school shootings and other modern day troubles without giving in to despair — their voices work well together, and the Motown-style horns and acoustic guitars somehow mesh.
But what should have been a dream team pairing with Gladys Knight on “I Know, I’ll Never Love This Way Again” fails to bring out the best in these two giants, and Cyndi Lauper doesn’t really add much to “Message to Michael,” which was probably perfect the first time around. — Gregory Katz, Associated Press
Compiled by Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times